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Falcons Roster Review 2015: Breaking down Matt Ryan's performance

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Atlanta's franchise quarterback turned in yet another strong season.

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Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

2014 proved to be another frustrating season for Matt Ryan. Once again, his offensive line provided inadequate protection more often than not; the ground attack, while not a disaster, wasn't much help, either; and thanks to one of the NFL's worst defense -- which finished last in the league in yards against -- he was forced to play from behind on a regular basis.

Still, the seven-year veteran did pretty well for himself, all things considered.

Statistically speaking, Ryan was up there with some of the best quarterbacks in the league. He ended 2014 fourth in the NFL in accuracy rate (a more telling version of completion percentage), fifth in passing yards, fifth in Pro Football Focus' QB rating and 10th in passing touchdowns.

Additionally, his accuracy rate on throws of 20-plus yards was 56.5 percent -- the best mark since Aaron Rodgers' in 2011.

Here is enough evidence to say Atlanta has one of the best signal callers around. However, the greater football community doesn't appear ready to consider Ryan an upper-echelon QB. At least not yet. This has, predictably, led to some heated debates.

Such arguments aren't exactly new. We had the same conversation last winter. And the winter before. You may have seen Tony Gonzalez's comments in a Feb. 2014 ESPN story -- "Matt's an excellent quarterback, but he's not elite" -- that only fanned the flames.

There are many reasons why people tend to undervalue Ryan's abilities. The Falcons have posted back-to-back losing campaigns, and fair or not, a lot of blame is going to fall on the man under center. Of course, his detractors are quick to cite his poor playoff record, as well.

Again, not exactly fair, but that's how it is in the NFL.

I'd like to suggest another reason: how we view "the big mistake."

The first person to write about this -- at least to my knowledge -- was Tyler Dellow, a former blogger who now works for the NHL's Edmonton Oilers. Dellow's site went dark in August, but one of his relevant comments has been preserved here:

If someone asked me what I think the biggest failing of the eyeball test is, I'd respond that it's the emphasis on the big mistake. There are gigabytes of information contained in a hockey game. So much information that I think it's difficult for anyone to take it in and organize it rationally. The way that our brains deal with that is by focusing on the big mistake.

What is the big mistake? The big mistake is the play that leads to a goal against. When we see a player who's made a bunch of big mistakes in a row, we get down on him. There are two problems with this. First, big mistakes don't end up in the net on a clockwork basis. If for, example, one big mistake in four ends up in the net, it's not like it goes goal, no goal, no goal, no goal, goal, no goal, no goal, no goal, goal, no goal, no goal, no goal, goal, no goal, no goal, no goal, goal, no goal, no goal, no goal. There will be clusters of goals and clusters of no goals.

Hockey and football are different in many respects, but this idea is pertinent in a wide variety of dialogues -- even those outside the realm of sports.

We as humans are unable to watch a game and correctly weigh every event that occurs. This is why statistics are so important: raw numbers and percentages are indisputable facts. They are inherently unbiased.

Let's relate the quote above to our topic at hand. Few will remember a 17-yard strike that required Ryan to thread the needle, even if this particular throw led to a score. Off the top of your head, how many of his 28 TDs can you describe in detail?

Conversely, just about everyone can recall a horrific interception that was nowhere near an intended receiver.

Like this one, for instance.

And many can vividly remember Ryan's brutal Week 17, when he threw two pick-sixes, zero touchdowns and was sacked on six occasions. Certainly, a cluster of bad plays occurred that afternoon.

His poor showing against Carolina and other woeful miscalculations don't change the fact that he ended the year with just 14 INTs -- one fewer than Peyton Manning, who fired 20 more pass attempts. Also worth noting: Ryan was intercepted the same number of times as he was in 2012, a year most would agree he fared extremely well.

Yet GIFs, videos and screengrabs of Ryan's lowlights made rounds on social media, and suddenly folks were talking about his gaffes more than his completion percentage, passing yards, third down conversion rate, etc.

Without a doubt, the eye test results in a lot of bad analysis. We saw this with Mike Freeman's hit piece in October. We hear it when talking heads proclaim Ryan will never win a Super Bowl.

These guys were/are too harsh. If I had to wager, I'd say it's because they irrationally fixate on big mistakes.

I want to share a few snippets from Freeman's article to illustrate how he let a single bad play influence his thinking.

There has been an inexplicable metamorphosis with [Ryan], a de-evolution into a player who at times is almost unrecognizable. His third-quarter interception against the Lions on Sunday was Geno Smith-ian. The only person near the football when Ryan threw it was Lions defensive back Cassius Vaughn. There was no Falcons receiver within several time zones.

...

When quarterbacks play this horribly, it's not usually the quarterbacks that get fired. It's the coaches. While Atlanta's division is putrid -- and because of that the Falcons could find salvation -- there's little reason to believe Ryan can save himself or Smith.

Give the entire post a read, and you'll notice Freeman's main selling point is Ryan's egregious lapse in judgement against Detroit. But when the aforementioned stats (and even the stats in his article) are given proper context, they say Freeman is horribly, horribly wrong.

There has bee no "inexplicable metamorphosis"; Ryan has progressed just fine. It's the team around him that's gotten worse.

This should be clear by now.

Personally, I think Ryan is on the brink of greatness. Since QBs don't deteriorate as sharply as other skill position players, he should have plenty of time to reach the next tier.

Give him a better offensive line, and it could happen in 2015.